MESSAGE FOR SEPTEMBER 26, 1999 FROM VARIOUS TEXTS
“THE CHARACTER OF GOD AND THE GOSPEL—II”
This week, we continue a parenthesis on the character of God and the gospel, taking a brief break from our study of Romans chapter eight in our series on this letter. We said last week that before we begin giving close scrutiny to Paul’s teaching on issues like election and predestination, its important to first equip ourselves with the same biblical understanding of the character of God which Paul writes with. The reason is because when issues like predestination and election are discussed, and in particular Paul’s treatment of how a sovereign God relates to free willed humans in salvation in chapter nine, one is liable to hear comments like, “My God would never do that” or, “My God is not like that.” “My God would never choose one person to be saved and not another—that’s not fair.” “My God would never exercise such control over a person’s life so as to superintend the choices they make as it relates to His Son, Jesus Christ.” “My God values the free will of humanity more than that because its as people freely choose to love Him, that He is most blessed.”
Do you hear that each one of those statements carry with them a presupposition about what their God is like? There is nothing wrong with having strongly held convictions about the character of God. God wants all of us to have those convictions. The crucial issue for God is this—“Our are ideas about what God is like based on His revelation of Himself in the Scriptures or are they based on something else?” Last week, we began a brief topical study of the character of God as it relates to the gospel to prepare us for the texts just ahead of us in Romans. If we do not have a right understanding of God, then when we get to texts like Romans nine, which portray God exercising at times almost ruthless control over a person’s will, we will become very confused. If our understanding of God is somehow incomplete, then our understanding of the gospel will also be incomplete because the character of God shapes the character of the gospel.
We must have a place in our belief system about God which makes room for texts like Romans 9:18—“Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” We must see that texts like Romans 11:8 which speak of God’s dealing with ethnic Israel are not inconsistent with God’s character. “…What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened, as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes so that they could not see and ears so that they could not hear, to this very day.” Those texts say something very powerful and jolting about the character of God and I trust we all agree that it simply wont do to shake our heads and jump over those texts with, “My God would never do that,” on our lips. In order for us to evaluate those texts and even delight in them, we must first scan the scriptures to see what beliefs we have about God are biblical and what beliefs about God are from somewhere else.
As we examine the sacred texts, it is crucial for us to remember the power of the popular, fallen culture in shaping the beliefs of the church. And the culture, (which has in so many ways invaded the church and had a huge, caustic effect on it,) believes that God’s only manifest character traits are grace, mercy, patience and its warped, self centered understanding of love. The culture we live in has no place in its understanding of God for His attributes of holiness, His justice, His absolute, sovereign authority, much less the priority He places on showing forth His glory. To the culture and, increasingly in the church, He is a God who exists to meet the needs of His creatures and to give them pleasure rather than His creatures existing for Him and for His pleasure. We must be open to the possibility that a man-centered culture has influenced our view of God. It has influenced virtually every other area of the church. We are foolish to think that we, who are exposed to the culture far more than we are to the word of God, are not influenced in some way by this. At best, we are being naïve if we think the culture has in no way effected our view of God, especially in this area of how His sovereign will relates to His creation in the area of salvation.
The theology of the Reformation uniquely and profoundly exalts God’s love and mercy. It does this, not at the expense of, but by drawing attention to the foundational biblical theme of God’s glory as seen in His holiness and justice and His sovereign authority. This belief system is for many evangelicals today a curious and distasteful way of thinking. This theology, which is found at the deepest roots of Protestantism and the modern missions movement, is today more than ever being thrown out as excess baggage. This theology, which has prevailed in the church for most of its history and which provided the basis for the preaching which ignited the Great Awakening, the greatest move of God in our nation’s history, is either not even known by many evangelicals or dismissed as embarrassing or “marginal theology.”
Last week, we laid a basis for this understanding of God by pointing out that the Scriptures clearly teach that God’s ultimate motive for creating us, forgiving our sins and giving us his grace, is for His glory, not our blessing. Even though the blessings we receive from those actions are inconceivable. We saw that God’s sovereign will in salvation cannot be violated by sinful man. God the Father irresistibly draws people to Christ. He “drags” them to Himself. Ultimately, it is God who chooses people to be saved, not people who choose God to save them. Because God’s sovereign will cannot be violated, as we saw from several texts, when a person refuses to believe that does not put Christ in the position of “a weak, futile figure tapping forlornly at the door of the human heart, which He is powerless to open.” As J.I. Packer says. We saw that both faith and repentance are not activities originating in the heart of man, but are gifts given by God to those He sovereignly selects.
That was last week. Next week, we will spend one more week just answering questions related to this issue. Questions like, “Isn’t all this fatalistic—why bother trying to influence someone to Christ if the outcome is already decided by God’s sovereign purpose? How does this belief system square with scriptures which highlight God’s desire to save everyone, like John 3:16? Doesn’t this turn people into robots who have no real choices? Isn’t this just plain unfair to unbelievers who seemingly never have a genuine chance to believe?” That’s next week, but this week we will examine more truth about the character of God and how that shapes the gospel. Remember, the goal of this is to make our upcoming study of Romans 8:30 and chapter nine a joy and delight, not a burden.
Another truth about the character of God as it relates to the gospel is this: God, as the Creator of the human race has the authority and right to do with people whatever best suits His sovereign purpose. If we are in any way not comfortable with this truth, then much of what Paul says in Romans nine will be very hard for us to reconcile with our emotions. As Paul makes a case in defending the faithfulness of God and his word in this chapter, he brings in other truths about the character of God as it relates to people He has created. One of those truths is that God has the authority as sovereign Creator to do with people whatever suits His sovereign purpose. He supports this with the example of Pharaoh.
What God did with Pharaoh is stunning when you think about it. We know that God says to Moses in Exodus 8:1, “Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, `Thus says the LORD, “Let my people go, that they may serve me.” That text tells us there is a clear desire on God’s part for Pharaoh to release the Jews from their slavery. The hard part in understanding that command is this: God had already told Moses in Exodus 4:21, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all the wonders before Pharaoh, which I have put in your hand; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” So, on the one hand, God tells Pharaoh, through Moses to let his people go and on the other, He hardens his heart so He will NOT release them. Why? He tells us in Exodus 9:16. God, speaking through Moses says to Pharaoh, “But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
The reason God did this to Pharaoh was so that His name might be honored and glorified. Now, this example of Pharaoh raises other questions which we will address when we get to Romans nine, but for our purpose, it proves that God has a right to do with His creatures what will serve his sovereign purpose. In 9:21 he makes this point precisely when he says, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use.” God is the Potter and humanity is the clay and the Potter has an absolute right to do with each piece of clay whatever most pleases Him. God’s creation, humans specifically, exist for HIS pleasure, He does not exist for our pleasure.
This understanding of God as the One with absolute authority can make people, even Christians uncomfortable. John Piper has said, “Few things are more humbling…than to think of His absolute authority over our lives as His creatures. He is the Supreme Court, He is the legislature…He is the Chief Executive. After God, no appeal!” We might not enjoy thinking of ourselves or our unsaved loved ones as God’s pieces of clay to do with what He pleases. That makes us feel helpless and vulnerable. And even though we ARE helpless and vulnerable before God, it is very hard for our prideful flesh to accept that. One big reason WE want to have ultimate control is because, to be honest, it is hard for us to trust God ALONE with the ultimate destination of our unsaved loved ones. We love that “lump of clay” He has in His hand and we want them to know Christ. One way people may try to ease those feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is to assert that WE humans have the ultimate say as to our final destination. Its MY choice—its my unsaved loved ones choice, not ultimately God’s. Because we have a hard time trusting in God ALONE for that person’s soul, we want people with their free wills to have the ultimate say over whether or not they go to heaven.
The fatal flaw with that thinking is this: If a fallen human being was given the ultimate say in whether they choose Christ or not, NO ONE, NOT ONE of them would choose Christ. Paul has already made that point in 3:11 when he says, “There is no one understands, no one seeks after God.” In 3:18 he says of the sinner, “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” The power of sin within humanity has so despoiled fallen people that NO ONE would independently choose Christ—the entire human race would be nothing but fuel for hell’s fire, if it were up to OUR decision in this matter. But even knowing that, we still have trouble trusting Someone outside of us with the soul of a loved one. Let’s face it, the biggest challenge any Christian faces every day is to trust fully in God and in His good plan for our lives. Our trust is never perfect and it can be exquisitely painful placing someone we love TOTALLY in God’s hands, even though we know that His will is “good, perfect and acceptable.” Ask any parent of a wayward child.
There is a truth about God which can help us have more faith in His goodness as it relates to His sovereign control in salvation. It can help us trust Him with our unsaved loved ones. This truth is very easy to forget about God. This truth is very simple and yet very profound and it shines an unquenchable light on God’s goodness and mercy and grace. What is this glorious, profound truth which magnifies the goodness of God? Simply this, God is under no obligation to save ANYONE. God doesn’t have to save anyone! God would be no less God and no less good if He didn’t save one soul. He is not bound by His holiness to pull one person off the road to hell and torment—not one! God’s grace is by definition “giving someone what they DON’T deserve” and his mercy is by definition, “sparing a person from what they DO deserve.” “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” according to 3:23. If all have sinned and fall short, then how many of us DESERVE to be spared the fire of hell? How many of us deserve eternal life? We must come to terms with the fact that our unsaved loved ones genuinely and completely deserve hell just like we do. No one deserves mercy. If you deserved it, it wouldn’t be mercy.
The challenge to believing that God does not owe anyone mercy is this. Because God’s mercy is so prevalent—is SO MUCH the norm in our lives, we tend to assume that His mercy is something He owes us, rather than something He may choose to show us if it is for His glory. We can illustrate this from recent horrible news events. We have seen horrible devastation in Turkey, Taiwan and the Carolinas, all from natural disasters. So many people in the midst of those horrific contexts are asking questions like, “How could a good God allow such evil to happen to innocent people?” Anyone who asks that question has a horribly distorted understanding of man’s sin and God’s holiness. Let me ask you something, from the perspective of God’s justice as it relates to sinful people, is there anyone effected by any one of those disasters who did NOT deserve what they got? They ALL deserved it and much worse because they were all sinners. Sinners DESERVE the fires of an eternal hell from a just and holy God, much less something less severe like an earthquake or a hurricane. The question asked of those outside the earthquake and flood zones should NOT be, “How could a good God allow that to happen to those people?” It should be, “Why didn’t a natural disaster destroy MY home, MY family, MY life because I too am sinful and have rebelled against God.”
This is precisely the point in the teaching of Jesus in Luke 13. There had been a small scale natural disaster at Siloam. A tower of some sort had fallen down and killed 18 people. Those who were speculating on the event believed God used this disaster to bring his judgment on those who had been killed and Jesus responded to that. He said in Luke 18:4, “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Notice, Jesus does not correct the assumptions about God’s judgment on these people and its never right for us to make that kind of judgment. He says, “They were no more guilty of sin, no more candidates for God’s judgment than you—YOU repent or you too will perish.” Jesus is saying—don’t take God’s mercy in keeping you alive for granted. All deserve judgment from a holy God. As one theologian has said, “The question is not, why would God allow a sinner to be killed. The question is, why does he allow so many other sinners to remain alive?” We almost never ask that question because we are so drenched with the daily mercies of God, we presume God is somehow obligated to show His mercy. He is not. In addition to being a merciful and gracious God, He is also a just and holy God and he can choose to allow those attributes to be expressed at any time according to whatever would be for His sovereign purpose.
Every beat of our hearts is a testimony to God’s mercy. If we got what we deserve, we would all keel over. It is God’s mercy that keeps us alive. God is so good, but we don’t have a profound appreciation for that goodness because we don’t think about the blessings of life in comparison to what we deserve from a holy God. If God were to deal with us according to what we deserve, our lives would be sheer torture in this life and the next. Psalm 103 says, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” If we were to consider what we, as those who have rebelled against a holy, just God deserve, and lived our lives in the light of that, we would be overwhelmed with the sense of His infinite abundance of grace and mercy to us.
When we get to heaven and look into the face of a holy God, we can be assured that our response will NOT be, “You know Lord, uncle Ned is not here and I am not the least bit happy with You about that.” NO!! When we look into his holiness and remember with perfect recollection all the sins of our own life, we will NOT be focussing on those people who we wish could have been there. We will be amazed at the grace of God to allow ANY sin-drenched creature to be there! We will fall prostrate at His feet because, in His infinite grace and mercy through the blood of His Son, He has allowed a wretched, undeserving sinner like ME to live in His presence. God is so good.
The bottom line is this: there is no guarantee that God will always answer affirmatively when you cry out for your child, your sibling, your parent, your loved one to be saved, but we must understand two truths. First, He has the sovereign right to do with them and US what He wants. He’s the Creator and we are the creature. He’s the Potter and we are the clay. Second, in light of the incredible abundance of his goodness in sparing us from the torment we daily deserve, we have a good ground of hope that God WILL indeed hear and answer our prayers affirmatively about our loved ones. It comes down to this: isn’t it better to trust a merciful, gracious God with our loved ones rather than with their fallen, twisted will which would never, ever choose God from their own sense of reason? As God said to Abraham, “Will not the God of this earth do right?” As the Creator, God has a right to do with His creatures whatever is for His sovereign purpose. And that is good news because we have an infinitely good God.
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